. . . because I wanted to know what I thought of it, not what I thought of it in the light of what they thought of it.
Here's what I think: it is in many ways a depressing book. Few of the characters populating the fictional town of Pagford (and its extension into The Fields) are sympathetic. Both irony and message are often layered on with a trowel, and all the sex in the book is just about as inviting as the scenes of domestic violence.
Yet there are flashes of well-crafted noir humor, deftly drawn character sketches, and scenes that you can feel as well as see in your mind's eye. Rowling's ability to limn the internal mental lives of the abused Andrew; or Krystal, the daughter of the addict/prostitute; or of Sukhvinda, the "average" daughter in an over-achieving family who cuts herself--these are characterizations that haunted me after I put the novel down. (Unfortunately, Stuart/Fats, who Rowling uses as one of the main viewpoint teens throughout the novel, is far less believable, and the gorgeous Gaia does not ever rise above cardboard, except when she befriends Sukhvinda.)
The best people in the novel, the people that do make the most positive difference in other people's lives, are all dead before anybody realizes how important they were: Barry Fairbrother, Nana Cath, and--at the end in a suicide following her brother's death that seems at least slightly contrived--Krystal Weedon.
It is intentional irony on Rowling's part that all three of these characters (who have to overcome their own unlikeable attributes) hail from the slum-like Fields, the despised area of Pagford that so many people are trying to dissociate from the town.
In the end it is Sukhvinda, the girl who cuts herself and then rises to become virtually the only self-actualized person in the book, who is the heroine of the piece. I'll give Rowling this: she makes me understand not only what could drive a teenage girl to shred her own flesh with a razor blade, she makes me feel it--and it is that moment with the razor blade in the darkened bedroom that transforms Sukhvinda from bit part to major character. She is the character who made me think that I must never take my own daughters for granted, because I can only guess their private hells.
But the reality is that this book will be, inevitably, disliked by most reviewers because it is too raw (and in many places too over-written), and because it is not what they wanted J. K Rowling to produce as her first "adult" novel.
Intriguingly, I think that the truth of this novel is that, in large measure, it is not only her first adult novel, but is very possibly a large portion of her first novel period. I think that Pagford may have pre-existed Hogwarts, precisely because the novel is so uneven. Significant parts read like an author still struggling to find a narrative voice, while others are considerably smoother, more self-assured. It strikes me that Pagford was the pattern for the Muggles, and that the Mollisons and Prices were the original inspiration for the Dursleys. I think it is quite possible that Rowling began this novel at the outset of her writing, found her muse with Harry Potter, extracted some key elements for that series, and then returned to the core story of Pagford for her first non-Hogwarts book. I think that nothing else quite so effectively explains the book's uneveness as that bits and pieces of it were composed a decade or more apart. Of course, I doubt we'll ever know.
I will read Rowling's next non-Potter book because this one was good enough to bring me back for a second look.